Many people have long advocated for a statewide office in Texas to defend people accused of capital crimes. The Texas Democratic Party has endorsed such an office in its party platform (PDF) since 2004. Now, Texas may soon get a Public Defender for Capital Cases office that would handle cases from 240 of Texas’ 254 counties. Last session, Texas saw the creation of a statewide Office of Capital Writs to handle death penalty appeals at the state level. The proposed Public Defender for Capital Cases office would handle capital cases at the trial level the counties participate in the office.
A Lubbock-based capital defense office might soon need a name change.
County commissioners on Monday submitted an application for a $7.65 million grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to greatly increase the scope of the West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases.If approved, the office that has already saved member counties in West Texas an estimated $637,000 in its two-year existence would expand drastically and become responsible for indigent capital defense statewide.“From a nationwide perspective, it really elevates Texas’ standards to show Texas is willing to provide the best possible defense they can for individuals charged with capital murder and willing to take whatever steps that requires to make sure that happens,” said David Slayton, director of court administration for Lubbock County.Slayton said the expansion would be good for Lubbock County because, as host county, it would be spearheading the state’s indigent capital defense initiative.The grant for the Public Defender for Capital Cases would fund defense for 240 of Texas’ 254 counties. That’s every county with a population of less than 300,000.The office would remain headquartered in Lubbock, but would have 10 satellite offices and include a chief public defender, assistant chief public defender, 29 attorneys, 16 investigators, 23 mitigation specialists and 18 legal secretaries.“One of the benefits I see is we’ll have some consistency from office to office around the state,” said Chief Public Defender Jack Stoffregen.Stoffregen would be responsible for increasing the staff from 15 to 90 people.The West Texas Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases currently serves 71 counties in an 85-county region.The current grant for the West Texas office runs through 2012 and would not be affected should the new grant gain approval, Slayton said.Stoffregen said the office has been successful so far – both in defending clients and giving peace of mind to member counties who are buying what Stoffregen characterizes as an “insurance policy.”As someone involved in capital defense for years, Stoffregen said, he is proud of what the office has done.“Something needed to be done in Texas and this is a huge step, in my opinion, in the right direction,” Stoffregen said.County officials expect to find out in June whether the grant was approved. If so, the expansion is scheduled to begin in October.